By Don Hall
In 1970, about $2,000 could buy you a really nice used car or truck from York Gary.
But instead of buying a car, 17- year-old Nashville native Gene Simmons spent his money on a steel guitar. There was only one problem—he didn’t know how to play it and didn’t know anyone who could.
“When I saw my first steel guitar, I knew that I liked it and that was what I wanted to do, I wanted to learn to play,” he says. “When I started, I didn’t know a single soul that played. I set it up in the kitchen and I completely sickened out my mom and daddy. It sounded worse than a bunch of squalling cats.”
Simmons comes from a musical family; all of his uncles played one instrument or another, and with time and practice he learned to calm down the squalling cats and actually play the steel guitar.
He taught himself, mainly from listening to the radio, but he also benefitted over the years by getting to know many world-class steel players who were anxious to help him out. “I played in the band at the Hot Springs Cowboy Church for 13 years and met a lot of Nashville players when they’d be in the area and come to church.”
Music wasn’t Gene’s only love. He attended Henderson State University on an athletic scholarship, and on graduating in 1975 he began a coaching career that would last more than 3 decades.
“I coached in Dierks, Mineral Springs, Lockesburg, Murfreesboro and Nashville.” An assistant coach in all those high schools, he specialized in the offensive line and in special teams, as well as being the head track coach at each school and the junior high football coach in Nashville, coaching here from 1981-1986.
“I coached 33 years, and I loved it,” Simmons says.
But the love for music never left him. All through the years he would coach on Friday night, then
play with area bands on Saturdays and during the summertime. “Weekends and summers we would stay pretty hooked up.”
One of the places he played regularly was the Ashdown Jamboree. It was there that he met Ward Davis, a 14-year-old from Monticello who joined the staff band. “With him being so young, I just kind of mentored him all I could,” Simmons said. “You kind of look out for a 14- year-old kid when they come on board like that.”
He became Davis’ friend and mentor over the next several years at the Jamboree.
Davis would eventually graduate from high school and move to Nashville, Tenn., hoping to make it as a songwriter. Over the years his songs would be recorded by Cody Jinks, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Sammie Kershaw, and Randy Travis, but it was when he decided to be a performer that his career really took off.
Meanwhile, 20 years had passed since Gene had heard from his young friend. That changed when Gene’s brother told him that Ward Davis was trying to find him on Facebook.
“I’m not a Facebook person,” Gene says, but a friend gave Davis his phone number. “He called me the next day and asked if I would come and play with him in a show he was headlining at the Ryman Auditorium.”
The Ryman, with more than 2,300 seats, was home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974. “On Saturday nights, my family would gather around and listen to the Opry on WSM 650 radio from Nashville, Tenn.,” Simmons said.
On Aug. 20, Gene set up his steel guitar on the same stage that his Opry heroes had played and sung on when he was a child. “It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he says. “I told Ward that I hoped I could hold it together. It was a lifelong dream to be on that stage.”
What does the future hold for Gene now that he’s achieved his Grand Ole Opry dream? “I just plan on keeping on doing what I’m doing now, playing at Mountain View Baptist Church in Umpire and at shows in the area.” His steel guitar keeps him busy.
Over the years, Gene influenced a lot of young men as a coach. He also influenced at least one young man, a musician, who has gone on to become a headliner.
Gene’s philosophy of life? “Whatever you do, you have to dedicate yourself to it. Dedicate yourself, and be dependable.”